Gender and Crime

Did you know that men and women commit different types of crimes at different rates?

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    For example, men are more likely to commit crimes than women in general (although there’s been a change in the numbers since the late twentieth century). Men are also more likely to commit violent crimes, such as murder.

    In this explanation, we will be looking at gender and crime in sociology. We'll cover:

    • The relationship between gender and crime
    • Gender differences in crime statistics
    • Theories of gender and crime in sociology
    • Major research topics in gender and crime
    • Evaluations of gender and crime theories

    The relationship between gender and crime in sociology

    To understand the link between gender and crime, sociology offers different theories explaining gendered differences in offending.

    Before we dive into them, let's examine some statistics on gender and crime patterns.

    Gender differences in crime statistics

    If we look at the figures from the Ministry of Justice's 2019 report on Women and the Criminal Justice System, it is clear that women still commit fewer crimes, and less dangerous crimes, than men.3

    • Out of approximately equal numbers of men and women in the population, 85% of the people arrested were men.

    • About 75% of those charged with criminal activities and 95% of prisoners were also men, which means that 5% of the total prison population are women.

    • Statistics show that 85-90% of male criminals commit serious crimes, e.g. violence and robbery, and 98% of sexual offenders are men while only 2% are women.

    • Summary non-motoring and fraud offences were somewhat balanced in terms of gender.

    Gender and crime theories in sociology

    There are several sociological theories on the relationship between gender and crime. These include:

    • The sex-role theory

    • Biological theories

    • Feminist perspectives

    • The liberation thesis

    The sex-role theory

    The sex-role theory argues that gendered differences in crime rates result from differences in gender roles, identities, and processes of socialisation.

    Followers of this perspective believe that the traditional values and norms associated with femininity discourage criminal activity and behaviour in women. However, the values and behaviours associated with masculinity are conducive to crime amongst men.

    Femininity and low crime rates

    According to Talcott Parsons (1937), women traditionally perform the ‘expressive role’ in their families, including raising children and taking care of their husbands' emotional needs. As a result, girls grow up internalising values such as being caring and empathetic, which reduces their likelihood of causing harm to others or committing crimes.

    Gender and Crime, Vintage drawing of housewife cooking in kitchen, StudySmarter.Fig. 1 - Women's low rates of crime are often attributed to traditional gender roles.

    Parsons also argues that women get more attached to their families and wider communities in carrying out the expressive role. They are more likely to keep in touch with relatives, friends, etc. This effectively broadens and strengthens their community bonds. Thus, women are less likely to commit crimes due to their attachments to others in broader society.

    Additionally, due to traditional gender roles and expectations, in recent decades, women have taken up a ‘dual burden’ or ‘second shift’ of working while also being responsible for housework and childcare. This keeps them busier than men, reducing opportunities to engage in criminal activity.

    Masculinity and high crime rates

    During the early stages of socialisation, boys familiarise themselves with traditional masculine roles and identities that are partially responsible for the high crime rates among adult men.

    American sociologist Edwin H. Sutherland (1960) suggests that the tendency to teach boys to be 'rough and tough' makes it more likely for them to engage in delinquent behaviour.

    Sutherland claims that ever since masculine roles and values started to be ingrained in boys during adolescence, they engaged in more rebellious and unruly behaviour than girls. Similarly, young boys in gangs learn necessary traits of strong masculine identity, e.g. dominance and toughness, from other adult male members (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960).

    Gender and crime: feminist perspectives

    There are two main strands of feminist theory concerning gender and crime: marginalisation and control theory.

    Gender and crime: marginalisation

    Some feminist sociologists assert that the marginal position of women in patriarchal societies is the primary reason men commit more crimes.

    The marginalisation thesis suggests that men are not limited to domestic roles and duties and therefore have greater opportunities to commit occupational crimes or form criminal subcultures.

    Gender and crime: control theory

    Another explanation for gendered differences in offending is based on the idea that women are more controlled than men.

    Conventional gender roles and behaviours imprinted during socialisation have given men more personal freedoms than women - men can stay outdoors for later hours, not be under strict supervision, etc.

    In Frances Heidensohn’s (1985) view, women are controlled by their fathers and relatives as young girls and later by their husbands once they get married. The corresponding lack of supervision or control by authoritative figures in the case of men could therefore be responsible for their high levels of delinquent and/or criminal behaviour.

    Pat Carlen argued that the class and gender deal combine and keep working-class women under control.

    Class deal: working-class women would work hard in exchange for money which was then used to pay for consumer products and services.

    Gender deal: women only engage in domestic labour - taking care of the needs of their husband, household, and family - and receive affection, love and financial support in return.

    These deals kept working-class women respectable, and as suggested by Carlen, women committed crimes as a rational choice when these deals would break. As a feminist, Carlen believed that women were exploited in both areas - within families as well as by their employers in the capitalist structure.

    Gender and crime: the liberation thesis

    According to Freda Adler (1975), increased freedom and growing economic opportunities for women have resulted in higher female crime rates. She argues that as women achieve similar social standings and employment patterns as men, they start to resemble men's criminal behaviours as well.

    Adler based this theory on a cross-national correlation between the levels of women’s economic liberties and their crime rates.

    Gender and crime: biological theories

    Biological explanations focus on the biological differences between men and women to explain the differences in crime rates.

    Men have higher testosterone levels than women, meaning that they are more likely to display aggression. This is why men tend to engage more in aggressive and/or criminal behaviour.

    Gender and Crime, Black and white image of woman hands in handcuffs, StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - There are varying sociological theories on the reasons behind the very low rates of female crime.

    Gender and crime: the chivalry thesis

    While crime statistics show that men commit higher crime levels than women, some sociologists claim that statistical data does not reflect reality. This is because most male law enforcement officers tend to protect women from the criminal justice system out of a gentlemanly attitude known as the chivalry thesis.

    This theory may seem somewhat fanciful, but it can be explained by gender roles and expectations. Letting off a person who has perpetrated a crime simply because they are a woman indicates that men’s ‘chivalrous’ approach rests on the belief that women are incapable of criminal behaviour. As they are considered emotionally or physically weak, women's crimes are taken less seriously.

    Therefore both society and the criminal justice system may underestimate women's criminality and let them go rather than punishing them.

    Otto Pollack argued women get away with committing as many crimes as men as they lie better. He further adds that this is natural to women as they learn the act of deceiving for reasons such as hiding menstruation and faking orgasms.

    When regarding Pollack's argument, it is important to remember that accusing women of being more deceptive than men with no proof can be viewed as sexist.

    Gender and crime: research topics

    James Dabbs and Robin Morris conducted research in 1990 on the relationship between testosterone levels and antisocial behaviour. He studied over 4400 men and found that men with high testosterone levels tended to have issues with substance abuse, delinquency, etc.1

    These men were also more likely to have multiple sexual partners, troubled relationships with authority figures such as teachers, and were more vulnerable to using hard drugs. This was exacerbated by factors such as inadequate education and low incomes.

    Another study by Dabbs et al. (1995) on young male prison occupants found that men with high testosterone levels engaged more in violent crimes, violated prison rules, and so on.2 Even in women prisoners, Dabbs et al. found that elevated testosterone was related to unprovoked violence, decisions against parole, etc.

    Evaluation of gender and crime theories

    • Stephen Jones (2008) disagrees with the liberation thesis and counters that women in prison were mostly suspects who were forced into criminal activities because of a controlling man due to patriarchal control.

    • Critical of "malestream" theories on gender and crime, Carol Smart points out that feminists need to develop a transgressive approach toward criminology and focus on what is harmful to women regardless of whether it is illegal or not. Theories of crime and deviance are generally based on men's interests, conditions, circumstances, etc. Therefore, we cannot expect them to carry the answers to women's issues.

    • Liberal feminists would diverge from the other feminist theories on gender and crime and consider them outdated, arguing that women in contemporary societies have achieved much more equality.

    • The number of female workers has comparatively increased in the criminal justice system. However, judges are primarily male.

    • Female crime is often considered 'doubly deviant'.

    The concept of double deviance refers to the fact that women are treated more harshly than men for committing crimes - first, for breaking social norms and expectations of how women should behave, and secondly, for breaking the legal rule/law.

    Gender and Crime: A Human Rights Approach

    In Gender and Crime: A Human Rights Approach (2016), Marisa Silvestri and Chris Crowther-Dowey look at gender and crime issues through a human rights framework. The authors cover the fundamental problems with gender discrimination in the criminal justice system and argue for the recognition of the human rights of every person in the CJS.

    Gender and Crime - Key takeaways

    • Men and women commit crimes that are different in number as well as in nature.
    • To understand the link between gender and crime, sociology offers different theories explaining gendered differences in offending.
    • If we look at the figures from the Ministry of Justice's 2019 report on Women and the Criminal Justice System, it is clear that women still commit fewer crimes, and less dangerous crimes, than men.
    • There are several sociological theories on the relationship between gender and crime. These include:
      • The sex-role theory

      • Biological theories

      • Feminist perspectives

      • The liberation thesis

      • The chivalry thesis

    • There are a number of evaluations of gender and crime theories from different sociologists and feminists.

    References

    1. Dabbs, J. M., & Morris, R. (1990). Testosterone, Social Class, and Antisocial Behavior in a Sample of 4,462 Men. Psychological Science, 1(3), 209–211. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1990.tb00200.x
    2. Dabbs, J. M.; Carr, T.S.; Frady, R. L.; Riad, J. K. (1995). Testosterone, crime, and misbehavior among 692 male prison inmates. Personality and Individual Differences, 18(5). https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(94)00177-T.
    3. Ministry of Justice. (2020). Women and the Criminal Justice System 2019. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/women-and-the-criminal-justice-system-2019
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Gender and Crime

    What is the relationship between gender and crime?

    To understand the link between gender and crime, sociology offers different theories explaining gendered differences in offending.

    What influence does gender have on crime rates?

    Men and women commit different types of crimes at different rates. For example, men are more likely to commit crimes than women in general (although there’s been a change in the numbers since the late 20th century). Men are also more likely to commit violent crimes such as murder.

    How are gender and sexuality linked to crime and deviance?

    An individual's gender, as well as their sexuality, can affect their likelihood of committing crimes/what crimes they commit.

    Does age, race and gender affect youth crimes?

    Age, race, and gender can all affect rates of youth crime.

    What does gendered crime mean? 

    A gendered crime is a crime committed against a person solely because of their gender/the roles and characteristics associated with their gender. It can also refer to crimes that predominantly affect a specific gender.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which sociologist suggests that the tendency to teach boys to be 'rough and tough' makes it more likely for them to engage in delinquent behaviour?

    Heidensohn’s control theory argues that female crime is less common because women are controlled more than men.

    What were the results of Dabbs et. al.'s research?

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